INTERVIEW AND LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
Jennifer Batten is an American guitarist who has worked as a session/tour musician and a solo artist. From 1987 to 1997, she played in Michael Jackson’s touring band, and between 1999 and 2001, she traveled and recorded with Jeff Beck. Batten has released three solo albums: “Above Below and Beyond” (1992), “Momentum” (1997) and “Whatever” (2008). In March 2019 she did three gigs in Finland with blues guitarist Erja Lyytinen and I had a chance to meet the cheerful guitarist in Helsinki.
So first of all, welcome back to Finland, the first time in twenty-two years!
Well, thank you [laughter].
The last time you performed here with Michael Jackson. Do you have any memories from that visit, or was it more or less just another city, and another show on that tour?
Oh gosh, last time was kind of a blur just flitting all over the world. It’s kind of like this area of the world just kind of all blended together as being beautiful in the summertime; I remember that about it. Yeah, it was great, and it’s great to be back. Especially in this capacity, playing with Erja is great.
WORKING WITH ERJA LYYTINEN
The next obvious question is, how did you and Erja Lyytinen end up working together?
We met last year about this time in Germany in Schorndorf; they do an annual week-long workshop. We were both instructors there and taught all day, long hours, and then two instructors would play at night, so I got to hear her set. We would meet during meals and I just got to know her. She was talking about her band, her van, and her career and I said, “Bring me to Finland. You’ve got a van. I only take up one seat [laughter] let’s do a thing together.” So she’s a real go-getter. A lot of people just talk, but she actually did it.
I think this an exciting package because you are known as a modern fusion style guitarist, whereas Erja’s style is more like basic blues stuff. How does this kind of mix work together?
Oh, it works well, yeah. Actually, when I go to a show, I don’t want to see two of the same sort of player in one night. I like a break with different textures and vibe. So yeah, it works well. I really dig the contrast.
You’ve probably reached some new fans; I mean, there are people in the audience who had never heard about you. Do you have any plans to continue working together after this tour?
Yeah, we’re already talking about maybe meeting up in the UK next time. We’ll see. It just worked out that I was going to be over here during this time that she wanted to book these shows, so it worked out well. Sometimes schedules are impossible so it could be a few years before it actually happens, but I think that the UK might be an interesting market for this kind of package.
Well, most of the songs on that were written by Jim Peterik from Survivor, so it’s really kind of a pop record. The actual title track “Battle Zone” is something Jim and I wrote together one morning before breakfast. He’s a very prolific writer, just always thinking of creative ideas, and we just sat down and knocked it out in an hour. Then Marc got in on it and started writing lyrics, and it just turned into a song.
For me, the song sounds like a perfect ’80’s hard rock song.
It’s very ’80’s. Yes. ’80’s sounds, yeah.
So are you a kind of a fan of that type of music?
I was in the ’80’s. I’m kind of into just whacky stuff now — anything really fresh and different kind of piques my ears. I listen to a lot of ethnic music, especially African and I also like electronica. Crystal Method is a band I’ve followed for years. So, I like to listen to things that are not what I do. One of my favorite guitar players now is Brad Paisley, a country player, just because it’s a completely different vocabulary. He’s a real creative guy.
You’ve been touring with various people, you’ve also done a lot of session work, including several tribute albums. Would you say something about the one you did for Frank Marino?
The one with Frank Marino– usually, I just get asked to do a solo. “Here are the 16 bars, and maybe you can just play the tag out.” That one was my first chance to produce an entire track for somebody’s record. So because I could do it from scratch, I just got to create the texture of what it would be. I went really ethnic on that one and got these exotic vocal samples going on it. I heard that he dug it, so that’s a win right there. I mean it’s kind of a tough thing to cover somebody else’s song because they’ve heard it a million times, they know how it goes.; they did it that way for a reason. So for me to take a completely different approach and him to like it, I was really thrilled with that. That whole project was done by a super-fan of his that’s a comedian. I don’t know how he knew me, but he contacted me. It’s just an email can change anything.
You also were you part of Kiss tribute album SPIN THE BOTTLE, produced and recorded by Bob Kulick. How was that experience?
That was silly! [laughter]. I did two tracks with Bob, and he didn’t tell me the first time that they were tuned on E flat. So I come in with a Floyd Rose guitar that’s really difficult to change the tuning and have it settle in in a hurry. So that was a pain in the ass. And then it happened again! I just forgot that that’s a possibility, and I didn’t ask, and I was like, “Oh, God.” And then, I don’t know if that’s the one with Tony Franklin on bass? Yeah. So I’m having tuning issues, and I’m playing with a fretless bass. I haven’t heard that in 20 years. I don’t even want to! [laughter]. I mean I was glad that he asked me to do it, but it’s not one of my favorite memories.
Another interesting album you played on was Carmine Appice’s “Guitar Zeus,” which featured a bunch of great guitarists. Tell something about that one?
Well, it was in the ’80’s, so the guitar was number one everywhere. So of course, a drummer’s going to look to guitar players if he’s going to create a record, it’s got to be guitar-oriented. We had a great idea of just getting a bunch of guitar players that were out there; Shrapnel was at its peak. I know Paul Gilbert was on that, I think, I can’t remember anybody else. I enjoyed that song that I played on. It was just a matter of show up at the studio, run it down, do a few punches, and go home [laughter]. I mean, that was– I prefer to do it myself at my own studio, but there’s kind of a different vibe that comes out when you’re under pressure, and people are watching, so yeah, it’s good to do both. That was much more pressure than just hanging out at home for a couple of days! “Laughs”
SOLO CAREER AND MUSIC BUSINESS TODAY
How about your solo career? It’s been 12 years since your latest solo album, WHATEVER, was released.
Yeah, I’m not into it. I mean, I’m into my solo career, I’m into playing live, I’m into recording on other people’s records; a lot of people send me stuff to work with. The whole music industry is shit, you know. And my last album, I spent over $10,000 and that’s recording at home, and just paying to have it professionally mixed and mastered. It’s a hell of a lot of money, and to know that people aren’t buying CDs anymore, they’re essentially stealing music, I just can’t be putting that kind of money out and not having it come back. Laptops don’t have CD drives in them, and people don’t even buy CDs, and now people are getting away from buying downloads, they’re just streaming, and so a million plays might get me 50 bucks. So I’m just not motivated.
Have you noticed that the sales are much different if you compare the US to Europe?
In some countries, like in Germany and here in Scandinavia, CD sales are still tolerable. People buy a lot of stuff, especially from gigs.
Really? I’m shocked. Huh, I didn’t know that. Wow, and you know, the drag is when I travel, I mean, my suitcase is full of gear. I cannot bring CDs with me. So I lose any potential sales because I just can’t do it. It depends on how your travel is. If you go to one place and it’s a big event, that’s easy, but for me, for instance, this tour is a patchwork of six different events. So I’m constantly on a plane, and they will charge me out the ass for a third suitcase.
You will lose money that way instead of making any.
However, if somebody comes in and offers you the money, it’s not out of the question to make another Jennifer Batten album?
Oh, sure, yeah. Let me know if you find a sugar daddy [laughter].
THE MICHAEL JACKSON BAND
Going back to the beginning of this discussion and your last visit here twenty-two years ago…I remember when I was hanging outside the stadium and at the end, I managed to find a ticket for 20 euros, or something, to get in.
€20? Really? Fantastic. Lucky you!
So I came to see the show, and it was a really impressive show although the area was 100% packed “Laughs.”
Right, yeah. Well, that’s what happens when you can draw 50,000 people [laughter]. Unless you’re in the front row which, who wants to do that? Get squished.
One thing about Michael Jackson is that people always remember the hits, and the stage show, but often forget the brilliant bands he always had. It was amazing to see the band performing live back in the day, and now it’s easy to refresh your memory with all those vintage tapes, etc. However, I remember that the band sounded magical!
Oh, yeah. Yeah, man. Ricky Lawson on drums. Here’s an example of how good it was, right? I was in five bands simultaneously before I got in Michael Jackson’s. In L.A., everybody’s trying to do the original projects, and you might play once or twice a month in each band. So then I get in Michael’s band, and a year and a half later, I went back and played with one of my old bands, and I just thought, “How come you guys suck now [laughter]?” Because being with such great musicians elevated my playing and my sensitivity to the groove because those guys could groove, man. And I tell you what; I’ve played with several Jackson tributes since then, especially the last couple years and they always insist on playing the live forms from the videos and the live tempos which a lot of times are much faster than the record. But they can’t groove like those guys, and so they just destroy the songs. I mean a song like “Working Day and Night” is mid-tempo on the record, and we used to race it live. Between Greg Phillinganes and Ricky Lawson, it was still funky as hell.
I think this is something that people don’t talk that much; how strong the band was.
Yeah. Well Greg Phillinganes, he’s a prodigy. I met his mother, and she said he was taking songs off the radio when he was four. He just had that ear that if he heard a song once, he could play it through. One time Billy Joel walked into the stadium when we were doing a sound check, and immediately Michael looked at him, and he started singing, “Don’t go changing,” and Greg was right there. There’s no fumbling about figuring out what key it’s in. He’s just right there to accompany; just stunning talent. Every tour. There were some different people each tour depending on who was available. Jonathan Moffett played drums on the last record. But, yeah it was a good group of people for sure.
WORKING WITH MICHAEL
You worked ten years with Michael, and what I’ve read, he had a habit of setting up all those crazy things for the band and crew, like opening private amusement parks to your use in the middle of the night. So, out of all things he set up for you, what was the craziest or most surprising thing he ever did, which you still remember well?
There was nothing really crazy. He’s the only guy on earth that could do that, and he did it several times to amusement parks around the world. We did it in Germany. I remember a couple of different times. God, what else? During the Super Bowl was definitely a once in a lifetime experience that’ll never happen again. So just the experience of that where you have the time of a couple of potato chip commercials to get the stage out there, put together, everybody on stage ready to go [laughter]. It was super fun because the pressure wasn’t on me. It was on him, and honestly, that’s the only time I ever felt like he was nervous. Can you imagine? It was in front of over 1.5 billion people?
Did you know in advance that it was THAT big crowd?
I don’t think so, no. I knew it was aired worldwide but and it was an odd thing too because the people in the crowd were there for football, the majority of them. So it wasn’t necessarily his crowd. So I still cringe when you see the beginning where he’s just standing there with his sunglasses on forever, and when he would do that to his own audience they would just shit themselves the whole time. Then he would take his sunglasses off, and they’d shit again [laughter]. But that other crowd was like, “Okay, get going”. That was a little awkward.
He had to try to win them over?
Yeah. I think he did, but maybe he was just trying to get his head together in the beginning too.
THE END OF THE STORY
In 1998 you stopped working with Michael and started to do other things, and it was because…
No more records. I worked all of his solo tours for BAD, DANGEROUS, and HISTORY, and he didn’t tour after that.
At that time, Michael tried to focus on his family and children, but things didn’t go as expected. He faced a lot of difficulties and problems in his private life. Although Jackson died ten years ago, the drama still continues. “Leaving Neverland” is a 2019 documentary directed and produced by the British filmmaker Dan Reed. What do you think about that “movie”?
The allegations, I just kind of heard about them. I don’t know if I heard them from the paper or just people talking and obviously, he was really upset about it. I think the best musicians in the world are very sensitive people. So I think anybody that’s lived long enough has gone through being accused of something that you know you didn’t do. I know I have. Just very minor things but I was not there, and in fact, there’s one situation where his makeup artist who is a friend of mine was with him in his studio in L.A., and the TV was on, and the TV was saying, “Well, Michael Jackson just went into this Swiss hotel with a little boy”. He wasn’t even in the country.
So it’s… I really felt for him, and I think being on the inside and knowing him just gave me a completely different perspective. This whole documentary that just came out is just…it’s just horrifying. It’s the judge and the jury, but it’s really only the prosecution because you don’t hear any arguments. You don’t hear anything about the holes in the timeline, that it’s obvious they were both shitting and just trying to get money. I saw one– the guy that did the film has been doing the circuit, every program there is– but I saw one interview which was plenty for me, and he said, “These guys didn’t get paid to do this. They’re just doing it because…,” and I’m thinking “bullshit!” This whole documentary is just a promo for the lawsuit where they’re trying to get a billion and a half dollars. They’re trying to get the lottery, and they’re pretty good actors but the only thing that’s heartening about the whole thing – obviously, I think it’s all bullshit – is Taj, one of Michael’s nephews, is doing a crowdfunding thing so he can do a film as the defense, saying he was molested hundreds of times.
But in truth, he was only at the ranch 14 times, and of those 14, Michael was only there four, so that doesn’t add up. And the whole thing, they say they were molested in the train station at Neverland, which was built two years after they stopped going there, so they’re not even good liars [laughter]. The unfortunate thing is, we’re living in a time of headlines, and Michael was a very easy target because he is a sensitive cat who’s soft-spoken, and he adored children. Like, I did the Morning Show the other day, and they go, “Well, isn’t it true he liked to hang out with little boys?” I said, “Yeah, and little girls. He just adored children.” He gave millions and millions of dollars to children’s charities. When we were on the road, we only worked two or three days a week so he would spend his off time by going to hospitals and bringing gifts to children that were stuck in bed there. And that whole side of him, just– people are going for the scandal. They’re looking for somebody to hate, and when somebody’s at the top, they’re looking at how can we knock them down. So it’s unfortunate, but that’s my side of the story.
WORKING WITH JEFF BECK
After Michael Jackson’s touring days were over, you started working with Jeff Beck. How much did you listen to Jeff Beck back in the day, I mean, were you a big fan of his in the early days?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. I was a major fan since I was a teenager and at that time, “Blow by Blow” was on the radio. And at one point, after I graduated from the Musicians Institute in – what the fuck? – ’79, I went about to learn every solo on “Blow by Blow” on Wired records. So one time I had that stuff memorized, but by the time I can get in his band, it was all unmemorized [laughter].
However, you joined Beck’s band in 1999. You did several tours together, and also two studio albums. How did that collaboration came about?
I needed a new job [ laughter]. Yeah, well Jeff called me about– gosh, I think about within six months. It seems like it was a very short time after the HISTORY tour was over. And it’s funny because I was so burnt out from touring at that point. I just said, “Man, I was thinking of getting out of music altogether,” and he goes, “Well, can you wait?” So I had met him a couple of times, and honestly, I tracked him down because I wanted an autograph. I knew we were coming to London, and I knew he might be around, so I invited him to one of the Michael shows, and we ended up meeting. I gave him a copy of my new CD that had just come out, my first. And he called me a couple of months later, totally unexpected, and said, “I just listened to your record. Let’s do a record together”, and I thought, “You gotta be fucking kidding me.” I was over the moon. But in true Beck form, it was about five years before anything happened, and the DANGEROUS tour happened in the meantime. But finally it happened, and we spent three years recording and touring together.
I just listened to the WHO ELSE! album while driving here. It sounds exciting and very different from any other stuff Jeff has done. I would describe it “really experimental stuff,” “Laughs.”
Well, Jeff was really into electronic. He was inspired by Prodigy at that time. And I remember everybody thought, “You got him into that, didn’t you?” And I said, “No, he got me into that.”
You were one of the first women to start playing with two-hand tapping technology. That happened sometime in the late ’70s, at the time you were studying at the Musical Institute?
Yeah. I was right on the cutting edge when I was starting to develop. Van Halen was just starting to climb, and when I was at Musicians Institue, we had a seminar every month with different players, Steve Lynch, and Larry Carlton. And one month it was Emmett Chapman who invented the Chapman stick, and there were 60 people. It was the third class GIT ever had. And there were 60 people in the class, and 59 of us, including me, were looking at him going, “Yeah. That’s nice, but we’re just trying to learn these six strings here.” He’s got a whole other tuning, a whole different technique. And it was Steve Lynch in the class that it planted a seed, and he started experimenting with getting rid of the pick and tapping on the neck, and he came up with a whole separate method than Van Halen had. I don’t know if Steve was even aware of Van Halen when he started tapping. And I was so intrigued. I would listen to what he was doing and just checking from time to time. He did a wonderful piece he worked out at the graduation.
During the school year, it was just too much keeping up with the curriculum to do any outside work, but as soon as I graduated I wrote to him and said, “Man, send me what you’re working on.” He sent me a cassette of three tunes he had worked out. And I tried to learn them, and it sucked. I was just using one finger of the right hand, and I didn’t understand that at that time he was using three fingers of the right hand. So I went to his house and had a lesson and then it all made sense. He had been working on his first book called “The Right Touch.” and showed me enough that I was able to take off on my own and started experimenting, and I just dug in so deep, man. I just went to town and ended up with blisters on all my fingers. I couldn’t play for a week [laughter].
THE LAST QUESTION
It’s unfortunately time for the last question: after this tour in Finland, what’s the next stop?
I’m going to Italy for six dates. I’m playing with John Macaluso. I met him a few years back, and we just had a great time playing.
He lives in Italy now?
Yeah. John lives in Rome. He married a Roman [laughter], so. He’s picking me up tomorrow at the airport, and he’s got a band together, and we’re going to do the few dates. Then I’m home for about ten days, and I come back. There’s a Hendrix festival in Poland, and then I’m touring the UK with the Jackson impersonator.
It sounds like you love flying? “Laughs.”
I hate flying [laughter]. I fucking hate it! I am not a fan of any part of it [laughter].
I think this is enough. Thank you!
LIVE SHOTS BY MARKO SYRJALA